The type of information provided by these certificates varies (since the format varies by place and time), but generally contains (if known) the father's name, mother's (maiden) name, the name of the informant, dates and locations of birth and death, cause of death, date and location of burial, and the business handling the burial. Sometimes the items are filled in "unknown" or the information is incorrect, but when it is used carefully to confirm or refute other information or as a lead, it is amazingly useful. For many of the people directly related to me that are included in this database (it covers the years from 1890 to 1976), I already had parents' names and the major dates, but there were still plenty of gaps to fill in, and in the case of the spouses of these relatives, it filled in many more gaps.
It sounds morbid to say so, but much of the information is fascinating. Each certificate has a little story, and some of those stories are quite touching and, in some cases, even a little sensational. The deaths of babies and young children are especially heartrending. When reading about the deaths of prematurely born babies in the early part of the 20th century, we can only wonder how different the outcome might have been were they born today. My mother's youngest brother and a cousin born in the 1930s died of diphtheria; one of my father's older brothers died of typhoid fever. A great-uncle died of anaphylactic shock after being stung by a bee. One of my father's cousins, a 50-year-old saleslady, was killed by four gunshot wounds to the head and back. I have done a few tentative searches for the story behind this (was she the victim of a robbery?), but so far have not turned up anything. And as to mental illness in the family, I remember an exchange from the old TV series Designing Women: "When Southerners meet and talk, they don't ask whether or not there is insanity in your family, they just ask which side it's on." "And what's the usual answer?" "Both." Well, that's true in my family, too.